1957’s TheBlack Cloud was Sir Fred Hoyle’s first novel.
Ayoung astronomer working a blink comparator gets a career-making break when he noticesthat a small black region on two photographic plates grew measurablyin the month between exposures. After a hurried consultation, thediscoverer and his colleagues conclude:
- The dark spot is an interstellar cloud.
- Its apparent growth is because it is headed towards the Solar System.
- The lack of transverse motion means that it is headed directly at the Solar System.
- It will arrive in about two years.
Excitingtimes to be an astronomer! Very exciting, because if the cloud passesbetween the Earth and the Sun it is dense enough to blot out sunlightentirely 1, dooming us all to a slow lingering death.
Well,the discoverer can enjoy his enhanced career for the two years he hasleft.
Havingdiscovered that Earth lies under a death sentence, the scientistsmust decide what to do with the information. With astronomer Kingsleythe one vocal exception, the group decides that the governments ofthe United States and the United Kingdom must be informed. CynicalKingsley suspects he knows how that will play out and he makes hisown arrangements. His cunning wins him control of a top secretfacility at Nortonstowe.
(Or,as Her Majesty’s government prefers to think of it, he and theother dangerous intellectuals are safely quarantined far from thepress.)
Itis assumed that the Cloud won’t stay; it will eventually leave theSolar System, continuing its travels. If humans can outlast thedarkness, they may be able to rebuild once the Cloud leaves.
Itis with considerable alarm, therefore, that the astronomers note thatthe Cloud is slowing down and seems to be settling around the Sun.
Butwait! There’s more! Kingsley and his team are feverishly piling updata and come to an unexpected conclusion: the Cloud is alive. Morethan that, the Cloud is intelligent, quite possibly of a higher orderof intelligence than humans.
Theastronomers may be able to negotiate peaceful coexistence with thebehemoth, but only if Cloud and humanity can work out how to speak toeach other.
Ifthe paranoid governments of the world do not first provoke the Cloudinto lashing out.…
Indefence of the paranoid governments of the world, not only has theCloud (inadvertently) killed a billion or so people (and driventhousands of unlucky species into extinction), but Kingsley andcompany try to hold governments hostage. They threaten to provoke theCloud into an attack if the scientists’ request for time tonegotiate with the cloud is ignored. It’s a bit surprising thatnone of the nuclear missiles that get launched towards the end of thebook were aimed at Nortonstowe. Hoyle takes a very dim view ofpoliticians but even he admits that in this case they were right toobject to Kingsley’s threats.
The1950s were a golden age of cozy catastrophes, where terrible thingsthat were nobody’s fault would wipe out all those people who hadthe misfortune not to be sensible middle-class English people. Inthis novel, industrialized nations are far more able to meet thechallenges of being first baked and then frozen by the effects of theCloud. While the various governments first ensure their own survival,the great powers — America, Russia, India and so on — also try tosave as many people as they can. The exception is China, which takesadvantage of the opportunity to let the Cloud rid them of Tibetansand Mongolians.
Inexplicably,nobody seems to have organized an effort to save Africans. Thisprobably contributes to the fifty percent losses the Equatorialpeoples suffer thanks to the Cloud. The Inuit seem to have beensimilarly overlooked but they fare far better than Africans; theenvironmental side-effects are less pronounced in the far north.Indeed, luck seems to be the primary factor determining survival:better to live in an industrialized nation than an agrarian one,better to be near a pole than the equator, better not to live underan authoritarian, vindictive government.
Weeventually learn that civilization did survive, but the author leavesus to speculate exactly what happened to the surviving humans, andcountries, after the crisis was over 2.I suspect that things were not all peace, love, and kumbaya.
It’sinteresting that a scientist would write a book that views genius asa matter of luck rather than an inherent property of some favoredhumans. As the Cloud explains, most people happen on inefficient waysof dealing with information while a fortunate few stumble onefficient ways of thinking. It’s not that geniuses have more ofsome mysterious q‑factor, they just get more use out of the sameresources than other people do. The Cloud believes even geniusescould do better than they do. Sadly, its first attempt to improvehuman cognition turns out to be uniformly lethal 3 … but that is why pencils have erasers and universities legions ofgrad students.
Alot of hard SF authors congratulate themselves for doing the math.Hoyle does more than that: he cheerfully shows the math,
withsupporting diagrams when needed. Readers can follow the calculationswith their slide rules or skim past the hard stuff as they choose!
It’salso interesting that a younger Hoyle (unlike older Hoyle, who wasalways sure that he was right) admits that there are problems that hecould not solvewith the tools at hand (slide rules and perhaps a UNIVAC or two.) This is vexing if getting your PhD depends onsolving such hairy problems; it is even more vexing if you are tryingto work out whether or not your planet will have a breathableatmosphere in a year’s time.
Hoyle’sprose is about as lyrical as one might expect from an astronomer withno particular background in literature 4. It does get thejob done.
Pleaseemail corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.
1:Not to mention acting as giant, if inefficient, reflector while it isapproaching the sun, baking the Earth before it freezes it.
2:A new ice age seems imminent. Also, it seems to me that having acloud with the mass of Jupiter pass through the inner system has thepotential to change the Earth’s orbit. Since nobody comments on theEarth having been pulled out to the orbit of Mars or dropped into theSun it seems the Cloud took care to minimize its effects on Earth’sorbit once it became aware the Earth was inhabited.
3:The fact the Cloud could blunder so badly does somewhat undermine itsrole as the author’s mouthpiece. It’s interesting that the Cloudseems to be convinced the universe is Steady State — but it alsothought that it could decant wisdom into humans without melting theirbrains, so it’s clearly not 100% reliable.
Oneinteresting detail about the educational method it invents is thatthere is reason to think it might not be lethal on the poorlyinformed (the lethal effect is due to contradictions between what thescientists firmly believe to be true and what the Black Cloud hasdecanted into their brains.). I’ve read a number of books witheducation machines and I think this is the only version I have seenthat works better on the ignorant.
4:It is only on this rereading that I first wondered: obviously he wrote the stuff but did Hoyle everread science fiction?